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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Eastern Electric Minimax CD player, Pro-Ject RPM 5 turntable w/Ortofon Rondo Blue cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Shrimp, Audio Zone AMP-1, Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage, Euphya Alliance 270 integrated [in for review]
Amp: Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks
Speakers: Green Mountain Audio Callisto (on sand filled Skylan stands), REL Q108 Mk II subwoofer
Cables: Acoustic Zen, Audience, Audience 23, DH Labs, JPS Labs
Power Cables: Audience, GutWire, Harmonic Technology, Wireworld
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning: BPT Pure Power Center w/Wattgate 381 outlets w/ Bybee Quantum Purifiers and ERS cloth, GutWire MaxCon
Sundry accessories: Grado SR-60 headphones, Pro-Ject Speed Box, Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Skylan damping boards, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Isoclean fuses, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Nanotech Intron 8500 CD fluid, Audio Magic/Quantum Physics Noise Disruptors, Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat, dedicated AC line with Wattgate 381 outlet, Echo Busters acoustic room treatments
Room size: 11' x 18' x 8', long wall setup, hardwood floors with large area rug
Review Component Retail: PRE-T1 preamp $2,395; AMP-2 monoblocks $2,475; DAC-1 $1,295

If Audio Zone and its budget Audio Sector offshoot have garnered an unseemly amount of coverage at 6moons, it's purely because the stuff is damn good. Like Srajan, I continue to be amazed by designer Peter Daniel's ability to get so much from so little. No doubt the incredibly short signal paths, an obsessive attention to the minutest of details and ridiculously low parts count contribute to AZ's growing reputation for stellar sonic performance in small boxes. Indeed, apart from the power supplies, the parts from Audio Zone's entire line could easily fit on my palms. And I understand there may be more goodies on the way from Peter and his partner George Tordai. There's rumors of a multi-channel power amp, an integrated with the same S & B transformers as in the PRE-T1 and an active preamp. I also know that Peter is currently experimenting with Fertin field coil drivers mounted in open baffles. Whether any of these exciting projects will result in commercial products is unknown. Based on what I have experienced thus far with Audio Zone, I sure hope so. It's positively scary to imagine the sonic results of mating high-sensitivity single driver field coil speakers with these speedy little chip amp demons.

For today, a brief update on Audio Zone's current line of separates will have to suffice. The most noticeable change to the units I reviewed three years ago is the outer appearance. If I could make one criticism of the original livery, it would be the lack of a consistent company image. Each piece, while wonderfully put together, just didn't match its line mates aesthetically. Not any more. Every component sports the same Zorro-like logo and similar outer chassis design. The most obvious change are the monoblocks, now encased in a brushed aluminum chassis with AC and signal connections situated on the rear panel as opposed to the previous model's opposite ends. Indeed, this is a far more convenient and eye-friendly arrangement. Power on/off status is now visible with a front-mounted LED. AZ's George Tordai cites improved sonics with the new AMP-2 monos due to the substitution of Black Gate capacitors for Panasonics and more importantly, he claims, a change in enclosure. The sudden production cessation of Black Gate prompted the cap switch. George and Peter experimented with various alternatives and found a particular Panasonic cap that sounded, much to their surprise, superior to the Black Gates in this particular application. Hence all new production AMP-2 monos feature the Panny caps. The point-to-point wiring of the previous models has been replaced with tiny boards, apparently without adversely affecting sonics.

The PRE-T1 TVC also sports a new look. Solid aluminum replaces the original's acrylic block. Various connection options are available upon request i.e. additional outputs, single-ended and balanced. The two miniature multi-tapped S&B transformers utilize OFC internal wiring as opposed to the silver-wired version Srajan reviewed. As before, a 24-step volume control handles attenuation while a small toggle offers a 6dB boost in transformer step-up gain.

The non-oversampling filterless DAC-1 is outwardly nearly identical to the version I reviewed previously. However, I understand there are subtle changes to the circuitry to further boost performance. The venerable TDA1543 converter and CS8412 input receiver remain as does the completely passive I/V stage. There are no op amps in sight.

Plugging the PRE-T1 and AMP-2 monoblocks into my system in place of the customary Shrimp/Mahi combo was unnerving to say the least. The transparency, clarity and detail were staggering as was the sheer lack of noise - just as I recalled with my initial review of this pre/power package three years ago. No hum, no hiss, no tube rush - nada. I can't ever recall hearing music emerge from as silent a backdrop as this. The result was a sense of heightened realism, with a plethora of subtle musical details and a stunning rendering of recorded venue. I didn't hear anything that would negatively alter my opinion of this trio. Perhaps it even sounded better than three years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't have a set of the originals on hand to compare.

On the other hand, my tube-based active Shrimp preamp and Mahi monos weren't exactly chopped liver. Their forté lay in a different area. While the Audio Zone was all about transparency, resolution and lightning reflexes, the Manleys offered a ballsier, tonally richer presentation, albeit a slighter more opaque one.

I tried pairing the AMP-2 monos with my Manley Labs Shrimp and the PRE-T1 driving my Mahi, to get a handle on what each component offered. Unfortunately, mixing and matching really didn't float my boat as I thought both lines performed at a considerably higher level with their respective line mates.

With the Shrimp, the AMP-2 monos suddenly lost some of their speed and incisiveness while the Mahi/PRE-T1 combination sounded incredibly clean yet tonally slightly cold. I wasn't too surprised. System synergy can be a fickle mistress and the slightest change regardless of a component's pedigree can sometimes upset the tea cart.

I've never really understood all this preamp/amp mixing and matching business anyway. As gain, output impedance and input sensitivities can vary dramatically from one brand to another, why bother? What's wrong with using an amp/ preamp combo from the same maker? Of course that's assuming they are actually designed to complement each other. My more experienced colleagues tell me that isn't always the case. Maybe I should stick with integrated amps. There's certainly less fuss and margin for error.

But with the PRE-T1 driving the AMP-2 monos, the results were damn impressive and came very close to the Shrimp/Mahi in fullness and tonal richness while completely surpassing them in resolution, micro detail and speed.

The DAC-1 was the real ear opener for me this time around. I realize it's been a while since I had the DAC-1 on hand but the newest iteration sure seemed improved to me. In fact, I was so impressed, I purchased the review sample and relegated my EE player to transport duties. Even with decent vintage tubes -- i.e. Amperex, Mullard and the rare yet sublime Lorenz -- music over the DAC-1 was smoother, more natural with a lovely, detailed midrange yet utterly lacking in edge or glare. That really surprised me. The Minimax is one of the sweeter sounding digital players I have heard. Timing improved as well. Music gushed forth with a more natural rhythmic bounce.

As for nits, the DAC-1 tended to squeeze images together with slightly less depth whereas the Minimax presented wider, deeper and airier vistas with sharper leading edges and dynamic graduations. The DAC-1 softened transients a tad but it more than made up by presenting a fuller, more naturally balanced midrange without glare or hyped-up detail. However, I expect those who prefer a more lit-up, edge-of-seat balance might find the DAC-1 a little rolled off or even dull. Whether the DAC-1's treble softening is a result of jitter issues or unfiltered digital artifacts is unknown. Interestingly, a couple of recent emails from readers have reported excellent results using a jitter buster or reclocker such as Monarchy's DIP with their non-oversampling DACs. If I can scrounge up such a device, I'll report my findings.

From what I have read online and in print, the general consensus among today's digital cognoscenti is that the NOS filter-less approach is technically flawed and all these unsuppressed digital artifacts will cause audible problems. The counter argument as proposed here and here suggests otherwise. I can't say who is right but at the end of the day, I go by what my ears tell me as opposed to a clever technical argument. Thus far, the non-oversampling filterless concept is winning in my listening room.

In many respects, the difference I heard with the DAC-1 was more a feeling as opposed to a grocery list of audiophile terms. With the DAC-1, music just felt more right than with any other oversampling/upsampling DAC or CD player I have heard including the Minimax. Music was more coherent and rhythmically alive.

When I wrote up the AZ power trio three years ago, I positively gushed stating that these were the finest amplification components I had heard. A lot of water has passed under my audiophile bridge since then but I still stand by that statement. The really weird thing is how the AZ system presents much of the image density and palpability or 'thereness' of tubes without their attendant noise issues, heat and inherent valve replacements costs. Yes they do lack that last ounce of richness but man, it's a close call. Perhaps if I manage to assemble the optimum set of ancillaries, I just might get that last drop of harmonic texture I lust after.

To sum up, Audio Zone has dressed up its line in matching finery while addressing some ergonomic and performance issues along the way. I can't say for certain that these new 'uns are significantly better than their predecessors but if it's speed and transparency you're after, then Audio Zone is worth a closer look. As for matching speakers, stick to 90dB and up with either first-order crossovers or none at all. Speed and coherence is the name of this game. Avoid anything with a phase angle or impedance curve resembling a roller coaster. While $5000 is a steep sum for some folks, the AMP-1 integrated at $2395 will get you closer to the separates than the price suggests. The integrated just misses the last degree of weight and resolution of the separates. As for the DAC-1, if there is a more inviting and organic-sounding DAC or CDP retailing under $2000, I'm blissfully unaware of it.

Audio Zone presents a convincing alternative to the big, expensive and complex audiophile status quo. Try some low-power solid-state with suitable speakers and take a walk on the wild side of audio minimalism.
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